Chef Mystique (or, Why Do I Wonder What Gordon Is Thinking Even When He's Happy to Tell Me?)

Curator's Note

Among their many enticements, celebrity chefs promise viewers access to their craft and, in some cases, their lives.  In fact, this promise contributes to the rise of today's celebrity chef, with figures such as Fanny Cradock and Julia Child revealing to viewers how they, too, can cook like French chefs.  (A model French chefs such as Jacques Pépin would soon follow.)  A chef like Gordon Ramsay takes this promise even further.  Through his spate of cooking shows, he reveals not only how a true chef cooks, but also how one lives, whether he’s making scrambled eggs at home or taking out his kids and dog for a constitutional before he serves the big Christmas meal.  Combine this degree of self-exposure with the sort of media attention given to celebrity chefs, and it would seem there’s not much we don’t know about them, as the recent case of Paula Dean attests.  Mystery and mystique don’t play much of a role in the making of modern celebrity chefs. 

And yet all those bright lights that shine on celebrity chefs do, I think, cast a shadow, if only on the mysteries involved in their own making.  Just what happened with that tire swing?  When the set designers were hanging the rope for this scene of Ramsay family fun, did they screw up or did they intentionally construct it so it would break?  And what did Gordon think when the “reality” of swinging his son in the park, quite literally, snapped?  Did he eventually unleash his signature rage on his production crew, as he does on his contestant cooks in Hell’s Kitchen, or did he think, “Great shot!”  The family’s hysterical laughter is suggestive.  Is it from their surprise, their relief that the kid is okay, their delight in being freed from—or caught in—the goofy charade they’ve been performing?  In moments such as these, the very process of making a reality television show or making oneself a celebrity creates mystery, maybe even mystique.  We’re not in the know.

Instead, we sense all we don’t or can’t know, even when a show and its star try to minimize the gap between their televised “reality” and the reality behind it by including content that spoils the original script and could easily have been cut.  In such moments, we’re left startled, captivated, dumbfounded by what and who we’re really watching.


It was certainly incongruous to see Ramsay in the context of beloved small children, hearing him say, 'Ooh, be careful!' and 'Sugar!' instead of his usual utterances. Are they even his real children? I would guess that the rope swing breaking is staged (though that was a risky one) because an idyllic scene of leather-clad Ramsay having a fun run around with his kids and dog would have been too boring without some mishap. Where's the plot, the conflict? This is just his kitchen drama transferred to a kindler, gentler family-friendly setting. It seems as artificial to me as his shows do though somehow even more disingenuous. As my husband commented while watching with me, "It looks like a campaign ad."

I don’t think the clip is faked, but it is filmed. This is Gordon Ramsey’s “ultimate” Christmas and the ultimate family gathering does not include a child with an arm in a sling. (The word “ultimate” in front of Christmas depresses me. It implies an end and suggests that now that we have experienced the Ramsey family Christmas there is no reason to celebrate our own inferior Christmases.) The scene is included because the boy was not hurt; a horrific moment was averted. Had something terrible happened, it would have been just as easy to cut the scene. As in his cooking show, Ramsey prevails (even if those around him fail) and that, I think, is the purpose of this clip. Ramsey’s carefully constructed televised Christmas is evidence of the perfectibility of Ramsey. The essential purpose of a Gordon Ramsey production (and, by analogy, all celebrity cooking shows) is to flatter the chef and increase the value of his brand. Ramsey, the father, is humanized in this clip and, simultaneously, his reputation is both enhanced and reinforced. As a friend of mine pointed out, the censored, “Oh, sugar,” gently reminds us that father-Ramsey is the flip side of chef-Ramsey, the man who swears a blue streak for our entertainment. He is capable of restraint when hanging out with his children, but he is still Ramsey. Contrast this "unscripted" moment with the famous (as well as the mythic) mistakes that Julia Child made. Although she never dropped a turkey (or a leg of lamb) on the floor as many believe, she once flipped a potato pancake onto the counter. “You just scoop it back into the pan,” she improvised. “Remember, you are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you.” Julia Child was willing to sacrifice her celebrity to empower the viewer. She made mistakes, so we could. She tackled recipes that, despite extensive testing, did not always work, so we should. She was human, so that we might be as well.

Thank you for these comments. I think you both voice smart suspicions about Ramsay, the flip side of which might be something like longing. That is, we—or at least I—find myself longing for chefs whose celebrity rises out of a concern not for themselves (okay, not *primarily* for themselves) but for me, their viewer: Julia Child, for example, modeling not "ultimateness," but, as Andrew points out, a charming and flawed humanity. I think this desire makes sense in light of the fact that the kitchen is one of the places where we're most fully human, not only because we fulfill the basic human need of eating there, but also because so much of what happens to make us families and communities takes place in our kitchens. Given the popularity of celebrity chefs, I acknowledge that what I'm about to say is demonstrably wrong, but maybe the kitchen—ours and the ones we encounter on television—isn't where we want to find celebrities; it's where we need friends.

Thanks for the fun post, Eric. I always feel weird about those "special" shows, the ones wherein celebrities, whatever their speciality, are taken out of the context that made them a celebrity in the first place. Maybe this is Ramsey's normal life, not a staged one, but either way, it's jarring, like watching LeBron James parade as a talk show host or Ellen DeGeneres suit up and jog out with the Miami Heat. That's not to say it's not a pleasurable surprise, but it's certainly not comfortable. Ramsey's armor is down so mine is, too; I'm waiting, I realize, for him to get back in the kitchen and back into his chef's coat, so I can relax into the familiarity of what's to come. To pigback (or contradict) your last statement, Eric, maybe we seek celebrities in the kitchen for the same reasons we seek celebrities on a basketball court or in a movie: to relish living vicariously in the "ultimate" moment. For me, Ramsey -- and any other celebrity -- gives the ultimate performance not in the park, but in the kitchen.

I think you are both right, Eric and Megan. We turn on the television looking for friends and not finding them, we settle for celebrity. Maybe that is why the celebrity chef had to work so hard to be perfect; they know we are settling for something less than we are seeking. I think we get something else, however. These shows offer us an easy path to virtue. Even if we never cook a thing, celebrity cooking shows seem virtuous. I could be watching a sitcom, but instead I am learning how to cook.

Thanks Eric, I actually hadn't seen this clip. But I think it's very much as Andrew suggests, that part of the appeal of the commodity that is the celebrity chefs is his/her humanness, which suggests a certain fallibility (in this case, a child who *could* have been a screaming, hurt one rather than a laughing, happy, safe one). This is very much in keeping with the trend of food TV overlapping with reality TV - at least to the extent that we are invited into the actual homes of these people (Kathleen, yes, these are his real children). All of which works to engender a sense of intimacy; private collusion even. Like Julia Child's wonderful comment about being alone in the kitchen, I'm reminded of an episode of Jamie's Kitchen in which he sneaks off in the middle of the night (to go mentor students on the graveyard shift in a bakery), and in a very "private" moment tells the viewers that he has mortgaged his house for this project, without his wife's knowledge, and knowing that she would "kill him" if she found out. Don't worry, Jamie, your secret is safe with us!

I hesitated to add anything else because it's Saturday and our symposium is officially over, and most of all because Signe had such a perfect last line. But I can't help commenting one more time because I'm reluctant to say goodbye to you all. Andrew, I agree completely about these shows making the viewer feel virtuous. It's like reality TV with a vitamin pill. And as for Jamie sharing his secret financial secrets with us behind his wife's back (that marriage ended, did it not?), it showcases the intimacy that these programs like to engender at the same time presenting something totally improbable and artificial.

Just to add that a) it has indeed been a fun week (great idea, Eric!), and b) no, Jamie is still happily married. At least as far as the public eye is concerned, that is. Though to bring it back to your opening post about Nigella, Kathleen, the boundary between appearances and reality are notoriously shifty. So perhaps, in conclusion, it's worth noting that celebrity chefs, and the artificial kitchens they inhabit, are as fallible, unpredictable, constructed, and boringly real as the rest of us. Thanks all for some great discussions!

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